It has been a full quarter-century since the long-haired clergyman with the ukulele drilled the church's children in singing, "God is a surprise, right before your eyes, God is a surprise." But the words stayed with me because, now as then, they match my own vivid experience.
The high spots of my life present themselves in retrospect as a series of surprises happy surprises, from the hand of a very gracious God. Is that unusual? I doubt it. But I also doubt that we dwell on the happy surprises as often and as thoughtfully as we should. There is great wisdom in the elderly children's chorus, "Count your blessingsname them one by oneand it will surprise you what the Lord has done."
Recently, at only a few minutes' notice, I realized that I was expected to reply to some kind things being said about me by saying something personal and also devotional. Off the cuff I listed some of the happiest of the happy surprises that have come my way, and the story came out more or less as follows.
It was a happy surprise when God made me a Christian, after two years during which I had kidded myself that I was one already, since I went to church and argued at school for the truth of the Apostles' Creed. Jesus Christ broke into my life, claimed me as his own, and made me a different person, all in the space of about 20 minutes during the second half of an evangelistic sermon. I remember the experience as if it were yesterday. At the time it was a shattering surprise, but happy is my word for it now.
Happy too is my word today for the surprise of realizing, about a year after my conversion, in my second year at university, that God was calling me to a life of ministry, as an undershepherd for his sheep. Being in those days an odd person, somewhat solitary and, as I thought and felt, very poor at human relationships, I fought the call, but GodI have to use the wordoverpowered me, telling me I must trust him and go ahead. It was unnerving at the time, but God knew what he was doing, and my call to shepherd souls has shaped my life's activities throughout.
I had arranged to go straight on to seminary in Oxford, where I was already studying. But it proved to be another happy surprise when in the final term of my first degree, having suddenly found in myself a strong desire to get away from Oxford for a time, I was in effect drafted out of the blue as a supply teacher of Latin, Greek, and philosophymy degree subjectsto spend a year in a theological school in London. There, I found I had a gift for teaching adults and a passion for educating ministers, and I went back to Oxford knowing that educational work of that kind would be central in fulfilling my pastoral call.
Then, shortly before my ordination to a parish, I met a young lady at a retreat that neither of us by rights should have been at. Two days and one sleepless night later, I knew we were meant for each other, and soon she knew it too. Looking back over our 55 years together, I declare that this was God engineering another of his wonderfully happy surprises; but this is not the place to celebrate that further.
Soon came the happy surprise of becoming a published author. Asked to write up a talk at pamphlet length, six or seven thousand words perhaps, I struggled for a year and boldly, perhaps bumptiously, came up with a book of sixty thousand: Fundamentalism and the Word of God, which is still in print half a century later. Its success showed me that writing must henceforth have a central place in the educational work through which I sought to fulfill my pastoral call. The further happy surprise of finding that when I turned some magazine articles into the book Knowing God, it became a nurturing tool for the Christian world, served only to confirm this.
The final surprise in this story was to be "headhunted," as we say nowadays, by my oldest Oxford friend, James Houston, to join the faculty of Regent College, Vancouver, of which he was the founder-principal. Nothing was further from my mind at that time than leaving England, despite some awkwardnesses there, and I had already turned down some invitations to relocate. But Principal Houston's approach led to a move into a situation in which I have spent, beyond all question, the best 28 years of my life so far. Finding that God was calling me to do what I can do as a British immigrant in CanadaBritish by genes, now Canadian by choice, as I sometimes express itwas startling, but has proved to be yet another of God's very happy surprises.
These were the turning points in my life that I reeled off to illustrate the truth that believers serve a God of happy surprises, which is what I sought to tell the meeting. Straight after I had finished, the program required us all to sing "All the Way My Savior Leads Me." Victorian hymns rarely do much for me (I am a Watts, Wesley, and Newton man), but, having through my own fault had to formulate on the fly and wing it verbally, and having, I thought, been helped in doing this, these words came as so true a theological interpretation of what I had just been through and the 63 years as a Christian that I had been talking about, that my heart was squeezed and I was almost in tears. In itself, the moment was yet another happy surprise, this time one of unexpected divine confirmation.
Paul, discipling converts, harps constantly on the virtue, duty, and (by implication) blessing of constant giving of thanks to God. "Be filled with the Spirit always giving thanks to God the Father for everything" (Eph. 5:18, 20). "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him and overflowing with thankfulness" (Col. 2:67). "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:18). Paul himself, in all his hardships, found matter for repeated thanksgiving in the privilege of his own ministry (1 Tim. 1:1214), in the work of grace that he saw through his evangelism, and in the churches' ongoing life.
Glum Christians who say they have not much to give thanks for are wrong. Some of the specifics of my experience, narrated above, are no doubt peculiar to me, but I cannot believe that the quality of my experience is in any way special. So I say: Look for the happy surprises, for they will help you to keep expressing proper gratitude to God all your days.
J. I. Packer is a senior editor for Christianity Today.
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Previous articles by and about Packer include:
Packer Stomp | Beeson Divinity School hosts a tribute to J. I. Packer. (John Wilson, October 3, 2006)
The Bible's Authority: Faith on Unchanging Terms | J.I. Packer's short review of Who Owns the Bible. (June 5, 2007)
All Sins Are Not Equal | Question: Are all sins weighed equally, or is one more important than another? (J.I. Packer, January 2005)
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